Hamas briefly detained Reuters bureau chief in Israel Luke Baker on Thursday after stopping him as he walked on the Gaza beach taking photographs.
“At a certain point a guy came over in a suit and said [in English], ‘Please come with me,’” said Baker.
He took Baker to a building where he was introduced to a man who identified himself as a major in the Hamas security forces. Baker and the Hamas major then sat in a shady spot in the courtyard of the building drinking tea and coffee for half-an-hour, while the officer quizzed him about his two-day Gaza trip.
“He asked what I was doing in Gaza and where I was staying,” Baker recalled.
Baker explained that he had arrived in Gaza the day before in his role as the head of Israel’s Foreign Press Association, to help host an event for the international and local media with Hamas leader Mahmoud Alzahar.
“He continued to ask a series of questions in good English. After half-an-hour I said I had to get to an appointment,” Baker said.
The incident did not scare him, he said, but toward the end he did become “a little bit disconcerted. It would have been much more disconcerting if it was the Kassam Brigade,” he said. “I have been in lots of these situations. I am happy to answer questions. It did not feel like it was aggressive.”
The Hamas officials who quizzed him were akin to an Interior Ministry security service, said Baker. “No one accused me of anything,” he added.
Baker became the Reuters’ bureau chief here in August 2014, but has been reporting in Israel and the Palestinian territories off-and-on for more than a decade.
The last time Hamas took him aside for questioning was in 2006, when he came to Gaza as a correspondent in the aftermath of the Gilad Schalit kidnapping.
On Thursday Baker tweeted about his brief detention.
“On questioning in #Gaza – I was not reporting. Was called to one side while walking on the street and taken into a small headquarters.
“I was not escorted by anyone with guns. A major from the security services introduced himself by name and asked me a series of questions.
“I was never accused of anything. Was given coffee and then tea. All questions about what I was doing in Gaza and what I do for work, etc,” tweeted Baker.
His last tweet included a photograph of a small sign on the wall. “I personally thought the most interesting element was the placard on the wall giving distance to Jerusalem.”
Baker said that he had chosen to tweet about his experience for transparency reasons in response to past criticism that the foreign media covers things up when reporting on Gaza.
“I am not afraid to let people know that things like this happen,” he said.
Earlier in the month Israeli police briefly detained Washington Post bureau chief William Booth and a Palestinian colleague. They stopped the two men as they conducted street interviews near Damascus Gate, brought them to the police station, questioned them and then released them.
At the time Baker tweeted about the incident by stating: “brief detention and questioning still seems wholly unacceptable.”
He has been outspoken in defense of the foreign media in Israel. In an interview with Globes he charged that Booth’s detention was consistent with police and the IDF harassment of the foreign media.
“The security situation in Israel is tense, and the foreign press and media are a scapegoat, or an easy target,” Baker told Globes in a February 18 interview. “I wasn’t surprised at what happened to Booth; the atmosphere in Israel is such that Border Police personnel think they have political backing for what they do. If people in the government say that the foreign press is an enemy, then there’s no question but that Border Police on the ground will translate that as backing for their acts.”
Earlier this month when he was leaving Gaza, Baker told Globes, Israeli security officials at the border took him to a side room and asked him to lift up his shirt.
“Harassment like that is trivial, I didn’t make a big story out of it, but it’s the kind of thing you get in banana republics,” Baker told Globes.
On Thursday, Baker told The Jerusalem Post
that he opposes the attacks on the foreign media, including the Knesset’s decision to hold hearings on its alleged bias.
“I do not think I have been critical of Israel. I am keen to defend the work of the foreign media,” said Baker.